Overall, the last weeks were busy weeks for me, but also rich in experiences and lessons. I would like to look back at two of them.
On 16 January, I had the opportunity to present my framework and some of my research I had done until then to a ‘larger’ public – PhD colleagues, researchers and professors from the Institute for History and the Centre for Contemporary and Digital History. This session took place in the context of the Let’s Think About History workshops at the University of Luxembourg, which provide a ‘safe’ environment for PhD students in history to present their research in front of their peers.
I was worried that my presentation would not be good or that I would not be able to provide enough and coherent information within 30 minutes for the discussion afterwards. After all, I wanted to explain my framework, discuss my research aims and questions, present my preliminary results. I assumed that only a good presentation would also enable a good discussion. It was not an easy task, and apparently I exceeded my time (though I was not interrupted and could finish my presentation without rushing through it). I prepared a PowerPoint presentation, but I decided to show only illustrations when necessary. It was the first time that I did not resort to text or bullet points summarising the content of my presentation. I might do this much more often in the future, provided that I have enough material.
Overall, I received a lot of helpful, critical and important feedback. Many interesting suggestions were made: including the industrial sector in my analysis, looking at the concept of Volkskunde, linking the concept of nation and nation-state to the evolution of cultural policy, taking into account tourism, the question of the public (to whom the ‘nation’ is directed), etc. A PhD colleague even pointed out a mistake in my graph showing the expenses for culture in the 1920s and 1930s, which I had completely overlooked before. It turned out to be a typo in my excel sheet.
I have a lot of work in front of me – and considering all the helpful input, even more than I thought. The discussion also reminded me that I need to approach my research with humbleness.
Another important experience happened more recently, when I conducted my first oral history interview for my dissertation thesis. Though I already did one for a seminar during my master studies (in the context of a project on the history of RTL Luxembourg), it was related to my own research and I carried it out together with another classmate, without reflecting much on the theoretical part of oral history. Since the beginning of my dissertation project, I have planned to include interviews with actors involved in cultural policy and the National History and Art Museum. For my first interview, I chose a person whom I already knew – we also addressed each other informally. I guessed this would make it easier for me for my first time. I used an audio recorder. Overall, I think the interview went quite well. The interviewer shared a lot of interesting information and anecdotes.
Some months ago, I read literature on oral history (I warmly recommend Lynn Abram’s book “Oral History Theory”), which helped me to reflect more critically on the way we conduct interviews, we interact and use them as a source. Conducting interviews – when done thoroughly and diligently – is not an easy task. Many issues need to be addressed: what questions to ask? How to proceed? How to behave as a researcher? How to use the information gathered and include this newly produced source in the own work? The exciting aspect of oral history is the conscious creation of new sources by at least two people. These sources are embedded in certain dynamics and are the result of interactions between the researchers and one or more witnesses. A great number of factors can influence the narrative: the environment, the behaviour of the participants, the questions asked, the relationship between the researcher and the interviewee(s), etc.
Granted, my topic is not difficult in the sense that it could trigger traumatic memories (as it would be with survivors of concentration camps, for instance) or touch upon sensitive and thorny issues (at least not most of the time). This would entail difficult ethical issues. However, in hindsight, I am not sure if, as a researcher, I did everything right. My idea was to have a semi-structured interview and ask more spontaneous questions in between when necessary. I did not respect the order of the questions I noted down, which did not surprise me: a participant might answer several questions at once, as she/he does not know what questions will be asked. When my interview partner started to talk about a topic that I planned to address later on, I preferred not to break the chain of thought and I jumped to the respective questions. I do not know if my prepared questions were too vague, but I preferred starting from the vague, letting the witness the freedom to answer the way he wanted. When necessary, I could still dive into the details. I did not use documents to help trigger specific memories (to be honest, I did not have any that would have been useful).
A quite difficult aspect for me concerns the way I bring myself into the interview. I asked questions and mostly let him as much freedom as possible, interfering only when necessary (to ask for a precision, for instance). As a researcher, I want to respect the witness and treat him as an equal. I listened to him carefully, took some notes, and avoided to have an expressionless face. Yet, at some point, I caught myself telling him an anecdote of a person he mentioned in his account. I do not know why I did this, I did not even expect a reaction. It might have been because I knew him already well enough, and carried myself away, turning the interview for a short moment into a conversation (though it makes me wonder whether all interviews can be considered as conversations? Or dialogues?). I think it illustrates that oral history is also a performance. As Lynn Abrams writes: “Oral history is the performance of a speech act.” It is quite possible that the performance – and with it the narrative – would have been different if I would not have met the interviewee before.
In oral history interviews, narratives are constructed that might not respect the chronology of events, nor are the memories of the participants absolutely accurate. This is an issue I will need to deal with. I will have to think about how and what information I can include in my analysis, even if I did not ask questions about specific events. If events were mentioned, the interviewee did it by himself. Many questions concerned the cultural policy at the time he worked in the department. I still need to transcribe the interview, which will help me to discover gaps or aspects that might need precision. As I won’t need to take the body language into account, I did not film the interview. Indeed, I do not really see how this might be relevant considering the kind of questions I asked and the topics I raised.
In general, this first interview provided a lot of interesting information that cannot be found in ‘traditional’ sources. Oral history (oral cultural policy history?) opens up new perspectives on cultural policy research. After all, cultural policy is not only about some abstract policy procedures. On the contrary, it is a lively topic, with many tensions and anecdotes, with dynamics and personal stories, with actors who shape it and bring in their own ideas. My first interview clearly illustrated this.
To conclude, I would like to address one serious question: could oral history, in my research, give a voice to people who do not appear in other sources, who are the ‘forgotten’ and invisible actors of cultural policy, who are the receivers (the museum visitors), who disseminate and produce culture (actors and artists, volunteers sacrificing their leisure time for cultural associations, etc.), who might be marginalized by the national cultural policies (lower social classes, migrants, disabled persons, etc.)? Whether I will manage to do that, remains to be seen. But it should not be neglected in cultural policy research, and especially in the history of cultural policy.